Anastasiya Melnichenko. Source: Facebook. When Ukrainian women took to social media to speak about their experience of rape and sexual violence in mid-2016, using a hashtag created by Kyiv-based writer and feminist Anastasiya Melnychenko, they were accused of everything, from performing an “emotional striptease” to “lying to get attention”.
The full scope of the problem of sexual violence, which was soon discussed on Belarusian and Russian social media too, shocked many of these women’s male friends and followers, those who never imagined that the women they know could have dealt with this phenomenon, discussions of which are still considered taboo by conservative members of society.
One year on, oDR’s Natalia Antonova spoke with Anastasiya Melnychenko about how her work continues in the form of a book on sexual assault, which is aimed at teenagers —and how to avoid burn-out when trying to change people’s attitudes about sexual violence.
According to your observations, have attitudes toward sexual violence in Ukraine begun to change over the last year? Personally speaking, I would say they have, but I'm just one observer.
Anastasiya: Yes, there are changes. People are talking about this topic more often and more freely, for over a year now. There have been several exciting flashmobs [related to the original hashtag]: “I'm not afraid to act”, a flashmbob against harassment in institutions of higher learning, the “I have the right to say no” flashmob, and others. It's as if this topic is on the surface now and the problem is apparent.
What's the overall reaction to your book been like? I know you said that it won't show up in school libraries – but I bet you're still seeing reactions from teenagers and their parents?
Anastasiya: The overall reaction has been positive. There have been some negative reviews from the queer community, some of which I took note of and agreed with, though some disagreements remain. When it comes to other communities, people are reacting with a lot of approval. I was pleasantly surprised when a teenage girl I know put a photo of the book cover as her Facebook cover photo. Many people are buying this book for their kids and grandkids, they treat it like a kind of revelation they want to share with their loved ones.
This makes me happy. I'm working on my next book now, but I think the quality will be higher. It will be a work of fiction for teenagers, featuring complex themes. I hope they like it.
As we know, there was a strong reaction to your hashtag in Russia – in fact, it was so strong that the pro-Kremlin Life News went ahead and attributed the creation of the hashtag to a different person, businesswoman and satirist Ekaterina Romanova, and even accused her of "monetising" the hashtag. Have you encountered other such conspiracy theories about the hashtag or you personally?
Anastasiya: Yes. There were accusations that this [hashtag] was a Kremlin-funded initiative. Some of my relatives wouldn't speak to me, because I “sold out to the Kremlin.” I saw theories, that I was going to monetise the hashtag. Some guy even promised he’d eat his hat if I don’t start raising money for something as I rode the wave of popularity. It’s been a year and the hat remains uneaten.
Some guy even promised he’d eat his hat if I don’t start raising money for something as I rode the wave of popularity. It’s been a year and the hat remains uneaten
Many of the people who haven’t read the book say that I took people’s stories [tagged with the hashtag], published a compilation, and made a lot of money. First of all, the personal stories are used as illustrations to the main text. Second of all, I had permission to publish each and every one of them. Third of all, my honorarium was 7,500 hryvnas, that’s around 300 bucks. If foreign authors saw how much we get compensated for a text 240,000 characters long, they’d probably laugh themselves silly. I don’t get a percentage of the sales either, so it’s hilarious for me to hear these “monetising” rumours.
The way I see it, Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian societies still very much display the following phenomenon – the desire to express solidarity with the attacker against the victim. This is where the popular saying “you’re an idiot and you’re to blame” in relation to victims of rape comes from. People are afraid to side with the victim, i.e. with the weaker side. Of course, we see this fear all over the world, but when it comes to the post-Soviet space, I personally relate this fear back to the legacy of war and mass repressions. I wanted to ask, do you see such historic factors at play here? Or is this problem more universal?
Anastasiya: What an interesting question. Women are scapegoated all over the world, because it’s convenient, isn’t it? This phenomenon has deep historic roots. Check out, for example, how Christianity bound women up with demonic forces. Naturally, a godly person is thrown off the righteous path by demons or demonic spawns, this conflict is eternal throughout Christianity.
And which demonic spawn is closest in proximity to men? Woman and her Satanic ways! She is guilty, because she is responsible for tempting man away from the righteous path. Until recently, women were seen as horny creatures who tempted man to sin, to dirty himself. So if you believe that, you HAVE to blame the woman for making a man sin. This very old system of views won’t go away any time soon.
Women have a lot of responsibilities, including being responsible for a man’s emotions and behaviour
What does this result in? Women have a lot of responsibilities, including being responsible for a man’s emotions and behaviour. A woman has to keep house, or else a man won’t be inspired to conquer the world. A woman has to stay forever young and be excellent in bed, or else her man will leave her. A woman has to inspire a man and act impressed with him, or else he can’t be successful. Finally, a woman’s behaviour determines whether or not a man will want to rape her. This is the logical extension of the practice wherein a woman performs the emotional “servicing” of a man in all areas of life. I don’t think this outlook is exclusive to Ukraine, Russia or Belarus.
I get very tired of this “you’re a fool and you’re to blame” phenomenon. You’re always having to explain things to people, you’re arguing with them, and you get insulted in return. Last year, I wrote about how during the height of emotional discussion around your hashtag, a fairly famous Russian writer (whom I won’t name, because I don’t want to draw attention to him) showed up on my Facebook page and called me an “idiot” and “eternal victim” – all because I had recalled how I was attacked in front of a bunch of people by some Chechen guys on the Moscow metro, and how scary that was, and how hard it was to get away. When this victim-blaming takes place, it tends to eat your energy, you want to say “screw it” and stop raising the topic altogether. Do you ever find yourself dealing with it? If yes, how do you fight this feeling?
Anastasiya: You’re right, when you’re treated this way, emotional burn-out quickly takes over. After the hashtag went viral, I left town for two weeks and cut off my internet access, for example. Today, the Ukrainian Facebook community Femactivism helps me blow off steam and receive emotional support. The support of one’s partner helps a lot too. Only when I began a relationship with a partner who completely shares my views did I realise how important, life-saving, even, such relationships are.